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Review: THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE at Mark Taper Forum

Review: THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE at Mark Taper Forum

The Search focuses on L.A. through October 23

When THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE originally launched on Broadway in 1985, it was an immediate sensation. The one-woman show won star Lily Tomlin Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics' Circle awards, and brought author Jane Wagner a Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience. In 1991, it was turned into a successful film, and now it has been relaunched and updated by Wagner, to mixed effect.

Review: THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE at Mark Taper Forum
Cecily Strong

Directed by Tony nominee Leigh Silverman (Best Direction of a Musical for Violet, 2014), Cecily Strong, an Emmy nominee for her time on Saturday Night Live and a Grammy nominee for the Apple+ TV series Schmigadoon!, plays 13 characters, if I've counted correctly. She first appears to us as Trudy, who wears a trenchcoat with myriad Post-Its inside with terms like "self-awareness," "fear," and "suicide" written on them. It seems she's been talking to aliens who have come to Earth to assess humanity as they search for the titular Signs. She then portrays an array of characters, including a male gym rat, a socialite, a punk rocker, a bored housewife, and two sex workers, who are part of the colorful fabric of our race, focusing on the feminist movement and American society, in particular.

Those are some big topics and themes, and while the world is dramatically different from how it was in 1985, many of the issues remain the same, though our perspective on many of them has changed. So where the original show was quirky and incisive and fresh and invigorating, this update, reimagined here by Peabody and Emmy winner Wagner herself, is oddly both relevant and dated. It may have been better to simply go with the original as a period piece rather than trying to straddle that text while also tacking today's issues on to it. One is left with a residual effect of disconnection.

Review: THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE at Mark Taper Forum
Cecily Strong

Strong has her moments, but at the beginning she seems rushed. She needs to give the words, and the characters, time to breathe. The roles all seem very similar in the first third of the show, and whether that's the writing or the performance is difficult to ascertain. If she didn't use other names in her dialogue, you oftentimes wouldn't know she had changed persona. That said, she gets on track as she goes. She slows down and really allows the characters to find themselves as she takes the time to ground them.

It's hard to fault her, though. Filling Tomlin's shoes is an unforgiving task. She's a comedy genius and entertainment icon. She has presence, energy, and talent to spare no matter the project. It's almost impossible to live up to the legend that is THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS and her performance in it. It doesn't help that Silverman's direction could use a little pop of energy. At 90 minutes (with no intermission), the show still feels a little long. It is helped by the outstanding sound design by Jeff Gardner; it's so on point you can't help but marvel at its timing. But even with the production not being pristine, it's still worth a gander as Wagner and Strong put up a mirror for us to gaze into our humanity and ponder whether the Search ends with us, or if we need to look farther into the universe for salvation.

Photos by Craig Schwartz Photography

THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE is performed at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. through October 23. Tickets can be purchased at CenterTheatreGroup.org and the box office, or by calling (213) 628-2772.


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